Whilst embedded with the US army in Afghanistan, British humanitarian photographer Giles Duley stepped on an IED – the explosion left him with horrific injuries and ultimately - a triple amputee. 18 months after sustaining injuries that meant he hovered between and life and death for months, he kept the promise he made to himself the day of the incident: To return to Afghanistan to complete his work documenting the impact of the invasion on civilians – now focussing on the wounded who have sustained injuries similar to his. This film documents Giles’ courageous return to Afghanistan as he undertakes his first major photographic assignment since the explosion - in the country where he very nearly lost his life.
Giles Duley lost his limbs whilst working alongside American troops, whose medical team treated him as one of their own, giving him the very best trauma care the world has to offer. The film features footage of Giles’ dramatic helicopter rescue by the US military and the work of the US Medevac team as they battled to save his life whilst in the air. Incredibly, Giles is conscious throughout and at one point asks the medics, ‘Am I going to live?’. In this film he is reunited with them in a bar in Chicago and in emotional scenes they all acknowledge the impact they have had on one another’s lives.
Two days after the explosion, Giles was back in Britain receiving cutting-edge medical care – he later became the first civilian to receive the intense rehabilitative treatment available to British soldiers. Eighteen months and close to a million pounds worth of treatment later, Giles continued to ask himself what would have happened if he had been one of the thousands of Afghans who have suffered similar injuries?
Giles returns to Afghanistan to discover that treatment for Afghan amputees - a significant number of whom are children - is tragically lacking. He is deeply troubled by the lack of sufficient medical care provided for civilians by coalition forces. Despite the prevalence of victims who are either amputees, or like Giles, multiple amputees, there is no strategic medical plan in place to help them. Many die horribly, either quickly due to lack of immediate care, or in a grotesque and lengthy struggle for medical help. Those who do survive will often face a destitute and unhappy life. Living within a culture that is intolerant of such disabilities, young amputees are unlikely to ever get married and are considered unemployable, whilst parents who are injured suddenly find themselves unable to support their families.
Giles visits a special hospital in Kabul that treats victims of the war. Run by the charity Emergency, this is one of the only free hospitals for Afghan war wounded. Whilst the medics undertake incredible life-saving operations, there is a limit to the long-term support they can offer. Giles is shocked and deeply moved to meet patients as young as eight years-old who have sustained injuries as terrible as his. Many of them cannot believe Giles has chosen to return Afghanistan, but he is determined to bring their largely untold stories to the attention of the Western world. The fact that he has shared such a similar and terrible experience immediately creates an affinity and rapport between Giles and the patients, resulting in poignant scenes and moving interviews about what it's like to live without limbs.
Giles proves to be an inspiration to many of the wounded. That fact that he survived his own injuries is testament to his sheer willpower - and it is certainly true that his recovery has been astonishing. After three months at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit in Headly Court, Giles was living independently and walking on new prosthetic legs.
The first thing Giles checked immediately after the explosion was that his right hand was intact. He remembers thinking: “I can still work as a photographer.” But he is yet to prove to that he is as skilled at capturing an image as he was prior to his injuries. This film documents the immense physical and mental challenges Giles has to overcome to go back to work, whilst also featuring interviews with the surgeons and medical staff who helped rebuild his life.
The film also tells the extraordinary story of how Giles and his girlfriend Jen became a couple. Jen and Giles had been ‘pen-pals’ for two years before they met, having been introduced via email by a mutual friend. Initially an online relationship, they would write long emails to each other as Giles travelled the world photographing the legacy of war in places like Sudan and Angola. When they eventually went on a date, it was love at first sight, although neither made the confession at the time. Giles left for his assignment in Afghanistan but on arrival in Kabul, he came to the realisation that he was in love and emailed Jen to tell her she was ‘the one’. Jen responded that she felt the same, but tragically Giles did not receive her email. It was sent the day he stepped on the IED. But since the first day she visited him in hospital, Jen has never been far from Giles' side. A trainee clinical psychologist, she is one of the main catalysts in Giles’ recovery.
The film also features the powerful photographs Giles captured whilst on this assignment. He has spent much of his professional life documenting people whose bodies have been torn apart by war. Now he has become one of them, he talks candidly about learning to cope with his disabilities. The film documents his struggle to complete his daily routine, whilst recording his new found insight into how the world views people with disabilities.
Prod/Dir: Siobhan Sinnerton
Exec Prod: Morgan Matthews
Prod Co: Minnow Films
Comm Ed: Dorothy Byrne